A long, long, long time ago, when there was a second Bush in the White House and the Simpsons were up to season 364, aspiring authors could only their books publishing if they followed the consignment model.
Kristen Lamb, author of We Are Not Alone, and the founder of the WANA (We Are Not Alone) movement, describes the consignment model best in her book Rise of the Machines. “A writer writes the books, then queries, then probably gets a stack of rejection letters. After some tough revisions, the writer continues to query and, ideally, finds an agent who believes in this writer’s work and merit. An agent sells an editor on either a completed novel or an outline/proposal for a book. When the publisher decides to take on a book, that book is then produced, however many steps that might take… Before that book is released, salespeople go out to retailers and negotiate placement for the book” (Lamb, 40).
For nearly all first-time writers, that spot is spine out on a shelf in the new release section or in your respected genre, where it resides for about six weeks after the 18-24 month process it took to even get it there. “Those front tables and displays can only accommodate a small fraction of the books published each year, and those spots are generally VIP only… Retailers only make a profit off the books that sell” (Lamb, 41).
“A writer can tell almost immediately how much faith a publisher has in her [or his] work by looking at the print run. A low print run generally means the publisher isn’t very confident that a lot of copies will sell.”
This explains why we as consumers often see the same authors in these displays. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and John Grisham are household names, and deservedly so, but what does that mean for newer authors?
“Once the clock runs out, the retailer gathers up any unsold inventory and then rips off the covers. They box the unsold books and ship them back to the warehouse at the publisher’s expense. The books are then pulped and turned into other paper products like toilet paper” (Lamb, 41).
Lamb further explains the new author’s plight by mentioning how little power the writer has in their immediate future, especially with their first novel. An agent sells a manuscript to an editor and negotiates the rights and the print run (the number of copies the publisher plans to print) on the writer’s behalf. “A writer can tell almost immediately how much faith a publisher has in her [or his] work by looking at the print run. A low print run generally means the publisher isn’t very confident that a lot of copies will sell” (Lamb, 42). High print runs are a calculated risk on the publisher’s part and, given that advances are becoming a thing of the past and indie publishing is on the rise, the traditional publishing companies are growing more conservative every day.
Also, as it turns out, the creator and reason that said manuscript even exists in the first place is also the last person to get paid. The publisher, the agent, the cover designers, the line editor, the copy editor, the binder, the printer, the salespeople, and the marketing department all get paid before the author does for their book. It is no wonder that, when Amazon released the Kindle in 2007, authors rushed to take advantage of a new opportunity to get readers to pay for their talents.
The Advantages (and Disadvantages) of E-Publishing
E-publishing comes with many advantages for writers. By publishing independently, authors are in more control of their creations than ever before. Instead of the publishing process, which takes 18-24 months, an author can get their book published online in mere hours after hitting the “submit” button. They can also set the price for their work and claim a much higher royalty. For example, on Amazon, if you publish a book and charge between $2.99-$9.99 for it, you will receive a 70% royalty. For anything less or more, you will receive 35%, which is still much more than the 8%-10% an author receives any time a physical copy of their book is purchased in a brick-and-mortar store (Amazon).
Getting published online also makes it easier for a new audience to access other works by the author, as opposed to physical copies of books, which usually go out of print. If a reader decides that they like an author’s work, they can purchase other books by the same author with a simple click of a button instead of having to search through catalogs and libraries to find them.
But beware. E-publishing can serve as a double-edged sword for writers.
Without the support of a traditional publishing house, self-published authors must wear many hats. Not only are they writers, but they must also outsource or design their own book covers, find their own editors, build their websites, take charge in all marketing and promotional activities (which includes having a strong presence in social media), set up their own book launch, and more.
Without the skill set or time, this process can be very expensive and taxing on authors, and often provides poor results. Most of the first self-published books on Amazon were ripe with grammar and punctuation errors, poorly-designed book covers, and had little if any, marketing or promotions. As a result, there was astigmatism toward self-published authors: that they had to publish their books themselves because no publishing house would have them.
The flip side is that those who did well early on entered a new aspect of the industry that traditional publishing houses were unprepared for and made hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars doing so.
These success stories did not go unnoticed. As the years went on, many mid-list authors, writers that were unhappy with their publishers, and those who were simply curious, decided to become hybrid authors and bring their fan bases with them. The freedom associated with self-published and the pay scale was very attractive to them. For example, if Author A has her book bought at Barnes and Nobles for $20 and receives 10% of the sale, she only gets $2 of that $20–$1.70 after her agent takes their 15%–and that is before taxes. That same author can sell her book online for $2.99 and receive a 70% commission, or $2.09. That said author is more likely to get a larger audience is her book is $17.01 cheaper than at a brick-and-mortar store, and she ends up making a larger profit while doing so.
As a result, the quality of many self-published books and the works assisted by smaller publishing houses and online publishing houses has grown significantly. Most of today’s customers cannot tell the difference between a book that’s been published by one of the prominent traditional publishing houses and a well put together self-published title.
To compete, traditional publishing houses are beginning to offer authors a larger percentage of their e-book sales, but to keep up in the new digital world, it may soon be the consignment model’s turn for an evolution.
Amazon. (n.d.). Amazon KDP Pricing Page. Retrieved April 13, 2018, from https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G200634500#70%
Lamb, K. (2013). Rise of the machines: Human authors in a digital world. (1st ed.). United States: WANA International.